How we planned our first Euro-trip

This is something I have wanted to share for a long time but was pressed for time and ideas to articulate. Taking up a low-travel desk job and not settling abroad was a conscious decision that my husband and I took so that we could visit our parents (or have them visit us) as often as possible. However, I'd be lying if I say that I never envied the friends working abroad posting #wanderlust photos of Grand Canyon and  Niagara falls every other week while we couldn't even make time for Goa.The Europe trip was our first ever "vacation" together - in the sense, the first paid leave we both took not to visit our parents in Kolkata but to go and see the world. Before this our travel plans were limited to nearby escapades on extended weekends- Coorg, Wayanad, Ooty just to name a few (not to undermine the exceptional beauty of the Indian Ghats a bit).

Europe is easily the most romanticized part of the world - the birthplace of Renaissance and industrial revolution that led to modern enlightenment, the birthplace of Newton, Galileo, Leonardo, Dante - so many who changed the world forever and shaped my childhood and adulthood; We planned this trip for almost a year- where to go, what to do, how many days, how much money etc. We finally came up with a fully packed 15 day itinerary covering 6 cities with complete estimate of what the middle-class me was most worried about - Budget! Here's an account of how we did it.


WHEN AND WHERE

The two most important questions to answer in any vacation planning- when and where? Since both of us work, and are fairly frequent at switching jobs, getting leaves at a common time is crucial. Another important factor for tropical people who are used to mufflers and monkey caps at 15 degrees, is weather. The third factor is of course, the availability and price of flights. Each of these factors conflict with each other - for most of us working in US-based companies December is the easiest time to get vacations sanctioned but we don't want to risk bronchitis on our long planned holiday; again summer would be perfect, but it is also the peak season with airfares soaring high.
We finally decided on Spring, the season of blossoms in April and May. Now that we had decided on the season, the choice of one place was simple - Holland , the land of tulips. We booked round-trip flight from Bangalore to Amsterdam for Rs. 38000 (€477) per person on a Friday night - a great deal in the season I'd say. Read more about our Holland trip

#Tip 1: Always book air tickets well in advance
Second question that comes is where else? Covering like 10 cities in 15 days can be a tempting idea, but it's silly. It just makes the tour more expensive, exhausting and gives you no time to explore anything properly. Now when you have just 15 days there are two ways to go about planning- get your bucket list and tick the top places you always wanted to see, or just choose the one indispensable place and then find the places that can be covered in succession from there. Going by the second method this is what we planned :
Amsterdam --> Antwerp-->Bruges-->Paris--> Barcelona --> Madrid

Keukenhof Gardens, Holland
The centerpiece of our Euro planning - Holland's tulip festival

HOW LONG IN EACH CITY
Based on the points of interest and weather forecast, we decided to keep seven days  for Spain- the joyous country in the Iberian peninsula known for great food and warm weather. We stayed three days in Amsterdam, one day at Antwerp, one day at De Haan, three days in Paris, four days in Barcelona and three days in Madrid from where we returned to Bangalore via Amsterdam.
The choice of 1 day each at Antwerp and De Haan may surprise many. Most of you may have heard of the world's diamond capital Antwerp, but may have never heard of this place called De Haan in Belgium. We decided to stay 1 night at Antwerp because it would be on our way to Bruges and the arrival time at the stop would be ideal. Hence the slightly off-beat stopover at Antwerp, a historically significant city where we did a self-guided walking tour. The next stop was supposed to be Bruges - Europe's cultural capital as it is known to be; but how we ended up spending a night at the countryside of De Haan instead, is a story better saved for another day.

ACCOMMODATION

IBIS Budget City South, Amsterdam
Just reached our first hotel- IBIS budget, Amsterdam
This is where you are just spoilt for choices- there are large number of youth hostels, zostels, Airbnb homes, hotels and resorts everywhere in Europe- you just need to choose based on your priorities. Most budget travelers like us go for hostels located at the city center, which are affordable, has good living conditions and are usually located at walking distance from most important places. However, in most top rated hostels at the city center the single rooms are pretty expensive, more than some budget hotels, so people usually go for dorms. Common dorms are a great option for budget stays but has few inherent cons that you should be aware of-
a. lack of privacy and peaceful sleep, with people going out or coming in the room throughout the day (and night); b. accessibility of common restrooms
If you are a seasoned solo traveler, these are nothing compared to the joy of meeting people and making new friends on the go, but if you are not used to it, you may consider a budget hotel. We researched online on all the well known travel sites and found that a budget IBIS hotel costs around Rs. 5000- Rs.6000 (€60-€75)per night including breakfast in peak season, which is the same as any standard dorm arrangement would cost the two of us.

#Tip 2: For friends travelling in groups Airbnb is a great option to explore apart from the hostels, but for couples or family, budget hotels come at the same price with more convenience. 
Also,
#Tip 3: Do your due diligence while booking hotels. Compare prices on Trivago, Booking.com etc. and also check on individual hotel websites for better information
And one thing I'm lucky we didn't do and you should avoid too-
#Tip 4: Hotels near airport are cheap but avoid them since these are mostly far away from city center and the transport to and from hotel is often not covered under the travel cards

Except Antwerp , we stayed in IBIS hotels in all other cities - IBIS budget and IBIS style.My review of their hotel rooms, hospitality and breakfast is pretty good for all- the budget rooms are very minimalist but are 100/100 in terms of maintenance and cleanliness. Detailed review.

GETTING VISA

I found the visa process for Europe fairly simple and hassle-free. You can get your visas from any embassy of any country in Europe, provided the country is included in your itinerary. We got our visa from the French Embassy in Bangalore with no assistance at all. Just go to the website , fill in the form carefully, book and appointment, have your documents ready and appear at the office on time for verification! If you make any mistake in the form, you will not be able to edit it once confirmed, and will have to fill in a new form all over again. No money is deducted for refilling, but just a small hiccup in the process. On weekdays if you don't book a priority slot with extra money, you'd need to take a leave, because from the crowd that I saw, it would easily take 4-5 hours. We booked a slot on Saturday morning (after we returned from the weekday slot) and the entire process took 30-40 minutes. We got the visa within five days.

TRAVEL & SIGHTSEEING

Travel-cards and city-passes are great tools to save both time and money in the expensive west European cities. Since most hotels we booked were away from the crowded tourist destinations, it was important to save on the frequent intra-city transportation we had to take. We booked Iamaterdam card, Paris Pass and Barcelona card online after much research and price comparison. For Madrid we bought a transport card from the railway station, which gave us free access to public transport network in Madrid. Read detailed review of the cards and how we made each penny count.
Beautiful trams at Amsterdam

#Tip 5: Take comfortable shoes and be ready to walk an average of 10 km a day

No matter how good the public transport is, you can't avoid walking if you really want to explore the city. Infact walking is actually fun in the European weather, on the clean cobbled streets, the picturisque bridges of Antwerp and DeHaan where we stayed for one night each, we just explored the entire place on foot. We loved riding the open hooded hop-on hop-off bus for a guided tour of the city and all places of interest at Paris and Barcelona. We got one day tour on hop-on hop-off for free with the Paris pass, while for Barcelona, we bought it at a discounted price for two days using our Barcelona card. Personally I feel these audio guided tours of the city on open-hooded bus or cruises are a great way of exploring beautiful cities with rich cultural history - it feels like literally walking into the world of a NatGeo documentary of the place.

For transport between cities we used a combination of all possible means based on budget, timing and place of departure. We booked Flix bus from Amsterdam to Antwerp, and from Bruges station to Paris. These private bus transport network is amazing in terms of comfortable seating, large leg space, timeliness and speed. We flew from Paris to Barcelona on economy flight Air France - you can call it the French Indigo 😜 except that they offered one complementary soft drink. If you have time and love to see the countryside settings you can take the Euro rail, but using flight we saved at least six hours. We got our first class Euro rail experience when we traveled from Barcelona to Madrid.
#Tip 6: Plan and book intercity transport in advance, online - saves you your precious time and the stress of booking last minute tickets at the kiosk. If lucky, it can save you lot of money as well- we got our first class ticket at a price lower than the normal second class 😁
Tourist pass review in part 2

PACKING

No matter what season you choose to go to Europe carry some warm clothes and a rain-jacket or umbrella. Pack those shorts and florals for great photos at the backdrop of  gardens and monuments and the blue sea, but  always carry a jacket wherever you go. If you plan to stay at just one or two cities, and take day trips , you can get a big rucksack like a proper backpacker. However, if you want to travel to multiple places, I'd recommend packing majority of your belongings in a trolley suitcase, and carry only the bare essentials like bottle, a scarf , jacket and your passports in a handbag or small backpack. The roads were great so we never had a problem dragging along the trolleys from one city to another, rucksacks would have caused severe back-pain given the long distances we had to walk during these transfers.
List of must-haves -
  • Europe compatible adapter for charging
  • A sim-card with sufficient internet for GPS on the go- all hotels and hostels, even major stations and city centers have free wifi, but when travelling on your own, using public transport in foreign countries with foreign languages, I think it is imprudent to depend entirely on WiFi
  • Raincoat/umbrella/hooded windcheater
  • Light woolens, thermals, stockings and scarf for the cold
  • A good Moisturizer or cold cream to combat the dry weather
  • Comfy shoes
Good to have in this season - sunscreen, shades, cap, leather jackets
Wearing both the jackets I carried, on a self-guided walking tour at Antwerp

CASH vs CARD


We exchanged €600 for cash before we left for the vacation. Love digitization, but cash is still the most widely accepted form of money even in the developed world, so do get sufficient cash through online booking, instead of waiting till the airport. Cash card has lower exchange rate usually but we were afraid about its acceptance. We rarely used credit cards, but when we did the interchange fees charged was way higher than the cash exchange rate.

Read Part 2 where I've included free tips of how to make best use of your travel cards. Thank me later :)

So here's my Europe travel planning story - was it any helpful? Anything I missed or could have done better? What was your travel story? If you have any questions, or  suggestions for improving the blog please write in the comment section. 😊😊
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